The USC Keck School of Medicine of USC is looking to find breakthroughs in understanding multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that disproportionately affects minority groups. Dr. Lilyana Amezcua of the Keck School is leading a research team to increase a scarce database of information concerning the Hispanic population that has long been neglected in scientific literature.
Amezcua said she wants to ensure that the Hispanic population, the minority group most likely to be diagnosed with MS, according to her, will not be ignored as they have been in years past.
“[Hispanics] have been … ignored or neglected in the literature [compared to other ethnicities],” Amezcua said. “But, here we have the opportunity to learn about them so we can treat them as a group.”
MS is an acquired disease of the central nervous system which affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. While its cause is unknown, there have been significant discoveries regarding the pathological path of the disease.
Amezcua’s interest in MS was sparked in 2006 during her fellowship at USC, where she was splitting her time between helping to treat patients in a public and private clinic.
“Going back and forth between those two clinics, I could tell that there were differences,” Amezua said. “When you would go to LA County, the diversity was greater … I was serving certain characteristics of the disease that I could not explain.
After finding only 1 percent of scientific literature was dedicated to minorities diagnosed with MS, Amezcua was driven her to conduct the research herself.
After gathering over 500 blood samples from Hispanic-Americans in the USC community, Amezcua realized she needed a greater sample size to draw any scientific conclusions. So she founded the Alliance for Research in Hispanic MS through a partnership with University of California, San Francisco and the University of Miami. Currently, the Alliance has gathered over 5,000 sample data.
With the preliminary data, the researchers then hypothesized there were external, environmental factors that could influence the severeness of the disease.
“US-born Hispanics tend to get MS at a much younger age compared to whites and compared within other Hispanic groups,” Amezcua said. “We don’t know why, but that is telling us there is likely an environmental factor more prevalent here.”
The team wanted to be the first to conduct a longitudinal study, one that examined not only genetic background of diagnosed patients, but also trace their life to find possible environmental factors that triggered their disease.
“Of course we wanted to go forward,” Amezua said. “About last year, I wrote this proposal that said we have enough preliminary data … but we want to know a little bit more.”
Amezcua and the rest of the research team launched a study in August where the team will follow 400 Hispanics who have been diagnosed with MS in the last two years, aiming to disentangle the genetic disease factors from the nongenetic factors. The project is being funded by a grant from the The National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“It’s a very interesting study because it is work that really hasn’t been done before, trying to get a better understanding of how MS manifests itself in Hispanic populations, looking at genetics but also looking at acculturation,” said Dr. Nicholas LaRocca, the society’s associate vice president of health care delivery and policy research.
The School of Cinematic Arts also collaborated with the project to develop a video for patients diagnosed with MS. While the video is not yet available to the public, Amezcua hopes it will be used as a tool nationally to inform patients of the symptoms.
“We’re trying to use that film as a tool to provide us more information as we explore some of those social cultural factors,” Amezcua said.